Random speculations below.
O.K., first, here is a link to the order of primaries and caucuses:
It is made somewhat more interesting by the decision of the Dems to penalize Florida and Michigan for being "too early," with the consequence that the major candidates will not campaign there, giving an opening for the folks behind the "big three" to generate news (which is the biggest problem for these guys).
Here is my current set of prognostications for the Dems:
Edwards: Edwards has remained in neutral in Iowa for 6 months. As a result, he has gone from first of the top three to third of the top three. He has also failed to attract major attention nationally, where he runs a distant third in both fundraising and the polls. OTOH, he continues to attract the most concern from conservative pundits as the toughest candidate to beat in the South and West. To the extent "electability" is a real factor, this may or may not matter. (More on "electability" in a separate post).
What Edwards Must Do: To stay alive, Edwards must absolutely get his people to the caucuses on January 3. The Iowa system is very quirky, and it makes showing up a sine qua non. In 2004, Edwards came in a strong second, shocking voters and giving him serious press coverage for the first time. Edwards has maintained his organization in the state, and if he can take comfort in one thing from the last 6 months, it is that his followers have not deserted him. A first place win, a strong second, or even a third if the votes are very close, keeps him alive until he can get to states where he is potentially stronger, such as South Carolina which rescued him last time (but is now very much in play). Edwards union connections also make Nevada a possible win, but he must fight hard against Richardson, who is well known and well liked in the region.
Secret Hope: Like a football team hoping for a wild card slot, Edwards has to hope that one or another of the other front runners drops before he must drop. If Clinton drops in Iowa and NH (a possibility based on current polling), then voters may conclude she has no chance and turn to Edwards over Obama. By contrast, if voters are genuinely "not ready" for an African American presisdent and Obama does much worse than anticipated, Edwards can expect to benefit as progressives that will not vote for Clinton come to him.
Obama: Obama definitely has the major momentum at the moment. His reconnecting with voters, combined with Oprah's endorsement (critical in the demographic that Clinton has courted), has seen him surge in the polls in both Iowa and NH (but not nationally). South Carolina remains very much in play.
What Obama Must Do: Obama must convince people that he is not merely inspiring, but that he has substance. The media and its emphasis on sound bytes make this difficult. Where Obama continues to get clobbered is in the perception that while he is inspiring and intelligent, he lacks "seasoning" and cannot take over the heavy mantle of responsibility for the difficult days ahead. In many ways, concern about Obama echoes concerns voiced about Edwards in 2004 that lead voters to ultimately favor Kerry as the more experienced (and therefore more electable) candidate. But in addition, there is the lingering concern that whatever people tell pollsters, they won't vote for a black man for president.
Obama's Secret Hope: Obama can survive a strong second if Edwards subsequently drops. Even at her high point, Clinton was never polling better than a third of NH voters, with the rest split between Obama, Edwards, and Richardson. If Edwards does poorly in Iowa, he will almost certainly drop. And Obama, even more than Edwards, will benefit from the "anybody but Hilary" faction among Democratic voters.
Even if Edwards wins, or does well enough to stay in, Obama can hope that Clinton will come in third. A third place showing for Clinton, even one in which the top 3 candidates remain in a statistical dead heat, will shatter the aura of inevitability projected by the Clinton campaign. That will benefit Obama far more than Edwards in New Hampshire, where Edwards campaign has made little headway. By contrast, if Clinton squeaks it out in Iowa, Obama comes into NH against what will be perceived as the "Clinton juggernaut."
Clinton: Clinton finds herself going in to the last few weeks with serious issues dogging her. The aura of inevitability which served her so well before has now started to crumble. Obama has picked up serious momentum. Her campaign staff have been caught in a number of clumsily executed little tricks and slips that play into the hands of opponents who challenge her as the candidate of the "status quo." "Status quo" being not merely about policy, but a broader code word for conducting politics in the manner in which politics has been conducted for the last 20 years.
OTOH, Clinton mainatins critical strengths. She has the support of the party machine, particularly the Democratic Leadership Council, which is critical to organizing "boots on the ground." Her standing with a particular portion of the Democratic party -- what used to be called "soccer Moms" -- remains utterly unshakable. She continues to lead in polls that test for "electability" and "experience." And while the aura of inevitability for her nomination has disipaited some, it has not quite vanished yet.
What Clinton Must Do: A Clinton win in Iowa, even only a slim win, would go a long way to cementing her victory, particularly if Edwards does not drop out. It will vinidcate party elders who point to Clinton as the candidate most likely to win, and provide a surge of positive press and contributions. If Clinton does not emerge as the clear winner in Iowa, she is still in the game as long as she does not finish third of the top three. Clinton has the money and organization to survive a muddle through Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina to get to "Super Tuesday," in February, where her name recognition and superior organization will almost certainly carry the major states of California and New York. This is especially true if Edwards stays in and continues to split the "anybody but Hilary" vote. Even if the primary delegates remain close after Super Tuesday, big ticket wins and her overall superior position with the Super Delegates should ensure a victory at the primary. But such a victory may well have disastrous consequences for the general election if Obama is denied a nomination on the basis of the Super Delegates.
Clinton's Secret Hope: Clinton has to hope that Edwards does well enough to stay in after Iowa. If Clinton cannot win a clear victory in Iowa, then she must hope that she is either first or second immediately ahead or behind Edwards. Edwards has severe difficulty going into NH that will not be fixed by anything short of an all out win. By contrast, Obama will suffer much more going into NH third rather than second, even if it is a statistically close third.